After bidding adieu to Bandhavgad, we left for the Panna Tiger reserve, our final destination of this long trip. Of all the famous wildlife abodes that we were to cover in this trip like Kanha, Bandhavgad and Satpuda, Panna was perhaps the most anticipated destination. The reason for the heightened anticipation was the awe it created in the conservationist circles. Panna has gone through cycles of zero tiger presence to an abundance resulting from successful reintroduction inside the park. Also contributing to this was the brilliant narration of the experiences of Mr. R.C. Sharma former Field Director of Panna National Park, penned beautifully in his book “The wildlife Memoirs, A Forester recollects”. The book vividly narrates the incidents of discovery of a Caracal, the chasing Tiger and about the unknown human victim of a tigress in Panna. All these contributed to a feeling of eager anticipation within me.
Though we began the journey in good spirits on a road that we slightly long but drivable; however we missed a bypass and entered into city of Satna. It was getting dark by the time we entered Satna and wonderful smells of hot samosas with richly flavoured Chatni of Dhaniya/ Pudina and Tomato flakes welcomed us. Satna looks like any other small town in the evening with regular small shops/businesses on the sides of road. The Traffic did not disappoint us and was really tiresome. The city of Satna is named after the river Satna. Rivers have always had a huge impact on human civilizations. An entire a civilization was called The Indus Valley, a state in India derives its name from five rivers that run through it (Punjab), and even Mahatma Gandhi named his adobe after the river Sabarmati. A river has always been the central lifeline around which settlements arose. Being the only source of life nourishing water, rivers have always been held in reverence. This kind of respect for rivers is seldom seen nowadays and the rivers are either choking with human filth or other manmade pollutants or are rapidly becoming bone dry. The Satna River originates from Forest Mountains near Raigaon and goes up hill to lose its identity to Ganga at Sirsa. More astonishingly this happens against the slope of the Indian sub-continent which has a decreasing gradient south east, but this river travels North East.
From Satna our destination was 2 hours away and we decided to have dinner at Satna, but finding a decent eatery around Satna even on highways was proving to be a futile exercise. We travelled afar in our search for a decent eatery and in the process found ourselves in Panna.
In Panna we had our dinner in the city and then moved on to go towards Madla inspection huts where our stay was booked. As we reached the Madla village and enquired for the huts we were guided to a building compound by the walls. We reached inside and started looking for the Chowkidar of inspection huts but there was no one who responded to our calls and finally we resorted to honking the car horn, but still there was no response. Luckily, I had contact number of Mr. Tamrakar who was the Assistant Conservator of forest in Panna. I rang him up and he alerted the ranger who in turn alerted the Chowkidar. The huts were finally opened and we unpacked our luggage and turned in for the night.
We awoke to a foggy, dark and cold morning. Our transportation, a Gypsy was ready in the courtyard. We boarded the jeep and soon arrived at the gate of park. At the registration office I realized that Panna faces a problem of a different kind. The guides’ earnRs. 250/- for one safari, but the number of vehicles on weekdays was almost negligible and the Guides at most get 2 to 3 Safaris for one week. The guides in order to keep themselves updated up with the movements inside the forest sometimes request visitors to let them accompany them on the trip. We had one such request and we obliged. It is always good to have an additional pair of eyes and ears in Safari. The Weather remained foggy and bitterly cold.
As we passed through the gate of Panna Tiger Reserve, on the right side of the pathway ran a boundary made up of flat stones neatly placed one above the other with sharp edges protruding outside .On enquiring we got to know that this boundary segregates the private estate of the erstwhile rulers of Panna with the tiger reserve. We entered a patch of forest where there were grasslands on both the sides of the safari track. The grass lands of Panna were not as majestic as Bandhavgad and Kanha The grass was not even ankle height but was green and wet with dew. A Male wild boar was busy in its agricultural activity of digging around roots of shrubs on the forest floor at the further edge of the meadows. As we moved ahead the fog relented a bit. We were moving uphill towards the Hinnota range which was a Vultures nesting site. This road was a ridged road and on one side was the uphill forested patch and on the side was Ken River, which is supposed to be life line of this forest. The Ken River is one of the least polluted rivers in India and one can see the waters to realize the same. The flow of the river is pristine with nothing unnatural flowing along; no foul smell around it and there is a green tinge to the water which it acquires from the greenery around and not from the pollutants.
As we were observing the river and talking about it, I thought this to be perfect habitat for the mystic Brown fish owl as well as Majestic Grey headed fish eagle. As on cue, calls of grey headed fish eagle started emanating from the valley and just ahead on a curve a Grey headed Fish eagle descended onto a barren tree, which had lost all its leaves to the bitter cold weather.
The fog was still there rendering poor visibility. But any glimpse of this majestic raptor is nothing but gold dust in bird watching parlance. The habitat distribution of this raptor is also very scattered and does not follow any pattern whatsoever.
As mentioned earlier Panna got its bad name from the vanishing act of tigers and there are various theories about the disappearance of the tigers at Panna, varying from conspiracy theories to natural movement of tigers. When Panna officials declared officially that now there are no tigers in the protected area, many eyebrows were raised in concern and many questions were asked, but no satisfactory answer was forthcoming. The Poaching angle was the most natural choice of explanation as Panna shares its boundaries with the areas where most of the notorious poachers have roots and operate. The other theory which now has emerged and I also would like to go with is the skewed sex ratio in Panna. Panna had a predominantly male tiger population. As a result of this territorial fights were common as well as tigers were moving out of the reserve in search of potential mates as Panna is connected with a rich contiguous patch of forests till Sagar. I also endorse the later theory as there were no signs of poaching as well as poachers would have also focused on killing the leopards as well, but during these times the leopard population thrived and became bolder and even stopped climbing up trees due to absence of their natural enemy-the tiger.
The Road leading to Dhundh-dhuan in Hinnota range is a treacherous road and involves a lot of driving skills. During the last stages of the uphill drive the road is paved with rocks but during the winters, the dew falls on the paved rocks making the road extremely slippery and to add to the driving worries this road is also very narrow. But as said if the destination is interesting, one must persist. Dhundh-dhuan, translated as Fog and Smoke, is a gorge in Panna formed of sedimentary rocks .This rocky formation has several small crevices which help in housing Vulture nests in the upper deck, and in the past the lower dens have been used by breeding big cats as well. The gorge is decorated with a thin stream of waterfall which adds the beauty of this glorious place. The Gorge opens up to a Rocky River bed jeweled with a mix of green and barren trees. It’s a view that gets etched in in one’s memory. No camera could capture the beauty of that place in its entirety. It was a picture postcard moment .The cold chilling breeze on the top of the gorge, the thin line of water coming down and disintegrating in to fog before touching the bottom, and green trees with azure hue in the valley formed a scene which currently is testing my limited writing skills. Early morning is the best time to visit this awesome place as at this time its mystic beauty is at its best. Early mornings are also the best times for spotting vultures as they remain very much on roosting seats and prefer to take to the sky in afternoon when winds are relatively warmer and helps the vulture to rise to higher heights which helps it to cover a larger area for locating a carrion. Panna has a healthy Vulture population owing to presence of big cats as well as because of the fact that villages around this park are very poor and had no money to afford the Dicolfenac based medicines for ailing cattle’s and hence the Vultures thrived in Panna even during the most troubled times. Panna has as its resident species, the Red Headed AKA King Vulture, the Ling Billed AKA Indian Vulture, and the White Rumped Vulture. The Eurasian Griffon and the Himalayan Griffon are the migratory species of Vultures which arrive in pre winter season to Panna.
Panna was renowned not only for its natural beauty but also on account of its Avian Fauna population. The crevices on the face of mountain gorge were full of Vultures, Eurasian and Himalayan griffon Vultures were all over the place. I was lucky enough to click a picture of a Vulture chick which is a high point in my wildlife explorations so far. We scanned through all the nooks and crevices and just on slight angle down we saw the most fascinating of all raptors, the peregrine falcon, sitting alert and looking for any opportunity to lift of the smaller chicks. The Peregrine falcon happens to be a prime predator of Vulture chicks and, precisely for this reason during the population estimation exercise of Vultures, population estimates of falcon population are also derived. This was my first such encounter with nesting site of vultures and I was spell bound by the habitat and the sheer size of the wing span of the adults. I could hear the flapping of wings even from some distance away. Dhundh-Dhuan had kept its promise and proved to be mesmerizing to the core. As we started to return from the top of the Gorge we came across many small streams of Rocky River bed flowing through the road. Such sites were making the entire experience so very picturesque. . As we moved down the hill the animal and bird movements picked up and we were able to see a Male Sambar Deer, a group of female Nilgai, a lonely common kingfisher gracing a stump on a Rocky River bed.
By now we were getting late on our exit schedule and we decided to move a bit fast. As we reached the meadows we came across a beautiful and fully grown specimen of a Ruddy Mongoose. Mongoose is an animal which is timid yet highly curious. Whenever I have come across a Mongoose I have noticed that the first reaction of the Mongoose is to run but post the first reaction of escape comes the second reaction of curiosity where the Mongoose turn around and looks towards the person who has spotted it. Same was the scenario here the Mongoose hit the escape button but soon curiosity took over and Mongoose turned to have a look and presented to me an opportunity to get a decent click
We left the Gate just in time and now sense of hunger was getting better of our sense of exploration. Near our inspection hut was a small food outlet (Dhaba) which made Bhajias. The Chatni again was the cynosure of the food items offered and after filling our bellies with Bhajia, Samose and Jalebis during breakfast we decided to go to the renowned Pandav Falls in between the Gap of morning and evening Safari. Pandav falls is just a few Kilometers from Mandla gate and its place which cannot be missed. There are 2 ways to reach the falls, one via Car and the other via walking. We preferred walking as birding is a byproduct of walking. As we reached the entrance broad stairs carved on rocks with iron railings on one side and rocky mountain surface on the other side welcomed us. As we got the first glimpse of the falls it was a view as beautiful as one can imagine, with a green reservoir in center and small streams decorating the rocky face of this reservoir. The credit for this needs to be given to MP Tourism .As a rule no plastics bags etc. are allowed in to the falls, nor is one allowed to carry any worship related materials. This rule is strictly enforced. This ensures that pollutants do not destroy the natural beauty of this place. The most interesting phenomena that I observed were the water drops dripping through the opens roots of tree on the top of the stones. We tasted the water as well and took a few photographs of ourselves at this place. The soul of this place lies in it being not interfered with and is allowed to be as beautiful as it was years ago.
We embarked upon our evening Safari with the agenda of boating in Ken River to spot some Ghariyals or Crocodiles and also to have a feel of the cleanest river from close proximity. On reaching the point where the patrol boat was parked we came to know that fuel in the boat was limited and all it could offer was a short round of the river. As we were talking about this I spotted a lean line moving slowly in the mid of the river, It was definitely a crocodile. Far away in the middle of the river on an island were river lapwings.
As we started the boat ride and as soon as we reached near the other bank of Ken, we spotted a huge crocodile on the sand banks. The Crocodile was lying idle. As we approached it we came to know about the reason of its lying idle. It had a huge wound on its stomach which was still fresh and was very deep. We could see the pink flesh inside the wound even from far away. We maintained our distance as the Crocodile was already in distress. A thought that came across my mind was that, life in the wild is extremely different life from us humans. No police/ Courts to intervene in territorial fights, No antibiotics to get the wound healed quickly. No respect for old age, only muscle power and reflexes comes to the animals rescue. This adult male crocodile suffered a deep cut wounds on side of its abdomen. In all likelihood this wound was a result of a territory fight. Can’t say he was a winner or loser, but one thing is for sure; he fought. The wound was like a badge of war honour on its body. A bit ahead we saw another huge Crocodile, much bigger and much agile than the previous one, this turned for water straight away and once taking in to water did not vanish, but for some time swam parallel to our boat before it changed its mind and started swimming towards our boat The engine of the boat was switched off to maintain silence but the distance between us and the Crocodile was decreasing at a very rapid pace. My 400 mm lens was of no use which meant that the Crocodile was less than 1.8 Meters away now and this made us very nervous, all of a sudden as if the Crocodile changed its mind and gently went in to the green waters of Ken. The boatman started the engine and we started to head back.
Once we left the boat, we were back in the forest compound of the beat office, where it is allowed to roam on foot in the vicinity of the compound. Just outside the compound was a hind of Sambar deer. I was alone and decided to sit and see the activity of the Sambar herd without using my camera. The herd had already spotted me and was watching me in a fixed manner before getting assured of no harm from my side. But after some ten minutes eating ritual curiosity got better of here and she again moved a bit more towards me. We talk a lot about animal activities and instincts, most spoken of animal actions are weaved around hunger, thirst, reproduction and defending the territory and above all self-preservation. The one which in my view gets ignored is the instinct of curiosity. Animals when are young are very curious and as they grow old the curiosity reduces a bit but never ceases. Obviously the most curious ones are infants as they want to learn what is safe and what is not post that the females in my experience are bolder and more curious as compared to the males. Curiosity makes animals do certain things which they would not do in normal course of action. Sambar Hinds (females) are more curious then most of the antelopes and deer. If one does not move much or avoids making sudden movements the Sambar hinds are known to come close to Safari Jeeps, Cameramen and stand up and stare with widely dilated eyes. I was experiencing the same scenario over here and decided to remove my camera cap once the Hind focused back on food and I successfully did so without spooking the deer, now the distance between the hind and me was less than 5 meters and I was clicking a few pictures at regular interval. By this time my colleagues came from behind and called me spooking the Sambar hind and making her dash in to the woods not to be seen again.
We moved ahead with typical sightings of blue bulls and spotted deer and kept scanning for raptors near the water body but it was not to be. Post a small Ghats section we entered a patch where trees were a bit less as compared to what we encountered earlier but way ahead we could see almost zero trees but a shrub dominant landscape .Before we could reach the shrub and grassland habitat something unusual happened. something flew very near to our heads and even the wings of that bird touched the head of Abhishek, this was a shock and when we gathered ourselves from this sudden appearance we observed that it was a huge brown fish owl specimen. This marvelous bird went ahead to sit on bark of a Babool tree and started pointing its beak downwards and opening its beak as if to vomit out. Looking at the pained expression with eyes closed and facial disc narrow, I quickly understood that it is regurgitating. Regurgitation is nothing but an owl’s way of throwing out indigestible and unwanted items from its stomach. Owls lack crop (a sack in the neck of raptors which can store food and send it inside digestive system once needed), so the owl has no storage mechanism and the prey (food) gets passed on directly to gizzard, a gizzard acts like a filter by blocking indigestible items like bones, fur, teeth and feathers to go in to the smaller intestine and allowing the soluble food parts to go in. Once the digestion is finished the owl starts regurgitating and this is often done at its favorite roost. Regurgitation is more important for owls as other raptors tend to clean and pluck their prey more as compared to owls. I have read earlier that owls have perfectly rounded wings so that the flight remains noiseless hence maintaining the stealth mode. I observed this in practical as no matter how many times I run this sequence in my mind I fail to recollect any noise of flight of the owl when it flew by just next to my ears. This face to face meeting in such close quarters with a huge Brown fish owl will remain etched in my memories for years to come.
We gained our senses from this amazing sighting and moved ahead in to the vast shrub land and as expected a common Kestrel welcomed us. It was a bitterly cold and overcast day and impact of it could be seen on the activity of the jungle. It had become heavily overcast and slight drizzle had started and this was the signal for us to start moving out as time was also limited and weather made matters worse. We started our retreat and were out of the park before rains gathered momentum. It kept on raining almost all night and as we woke up in the morning the rains had stopped but looking at the fog we knew that the fate of our final safari was nothing but sealed. Still we went inside the forest and the most important learning on tiger conservation was waiting for us. As there was no movement of either the birds or mammals we while discussing came to know about a beat office which was nearby, we went there to interact with the forest guards which have been posted on the beat. As we went there we observed the antenna for wireless as well as the jeep had an old styled Aluminum antenna mounted on it. On enquiring about it they informed us that they keep a tab of a tigress around on its movements and report them in every day. Monitoring tigers in Panna is essential to conservation as the tigers earlier as well have relinquished Panna to move to adjoining areas. Most of the tigers in Panna are radio collared and a 2 men patrol team monitors them day in day out.
While coming back we spotted a Crested Serpent Eagle sitting on a tree at the distant end of a small pond with murky water, the Eagle was trying to conserve warmth as sun light had not reached till its tree. We looked around for some signs of terrapin’s or turtles but not to be. I spotted a wagtail kind of bird in dense bushes, looking at the time of year and preferred habitat it looked like a Forest wagtail, asking a senior Guide Mr. Negi confirmed the presence of migratory bird in the forest and one more bird increased in my bird count. Far away a male peacock moved away surprisingly in a shy manner.
Reintroduction of tigers in Panna is a story which has been lauded at world level and will now be used as a case study for replication of this task for more information you can visit the official website of Panna and learn more about this fabulous success story
Panna to me presented an emerald abode for wildlife, with beautiful forest bejeweled with Rocky River beds, majestic gorges and valleys, pristine river bodies and unbridled flow of life.
So don’t wait, pack your blankets and pillow, reach out explore more, you will never regret..